I must admit. During most of my 80-plus years I took it for granted that Christians served in the military. I was awed by the supreme sacrifice made. I still am!
I also knew that in 313, Emperor Constantine stopped the persecution of Christians. What a relief that must have been!
But I never really gave much thought to how state recognition subtly led to changes in what people thought it meant to be a Christian.
In this Vincentian Mindwalk I try to connect some dots.
Unforeseen consequences of the end of persecutions
A brief essay I read this morning got me thinking. It was part of a larger reflection on the relationship between church and culture. Some facts hit home.
Prior to the year 313, it was unthinkable that a Christian would fight in the army. Jesus’ teaching on nonviolence seemed self-evident.
In less than a century, by the year 400, virtually the entire Roman army is Christian. And… Christians are killing the “pagans.” From there it was not too long for “Crusades.“
I started thinking. Might this be a cautionary example of reading the “signs of the times” and adapting to a culture gone awry?
The transition of Christianity from a persecuted minority to a state-supported religion brought about several changes.
Many elements of pagan culture and traditions were incorporated into Christian practices. Existing customs and rituals became a part of the newly established Christian framework. Pagan festivals and temples were often repurposed or transformed into Christian celebrations and places of worship.
As Christianity gained state support and became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, it became more organized and developed a hierarchical structure modeled after prevailing culture of governance.
Bishops and clergy played a prominent role in the governance of the Church. The establishment of a central authority, such as the papacy in the Western Roman Empire, helped solidify the Church’s structure.
Ecumenical councils, such as the Council of Nicaea in 325, were convened to address theological issues and establish orthodox beliefs. However, Emperors and political authorities exerted their influence in an effort to shape the doctrines of the Church.
As Christianity gained power and influence, it sometimes led to the suppression and persecution of other religious groups. Pagan temples and practices were destroyed or banned, and non-Christian religions were marginalized or suppressed. This marked a departure from the early Christian ethos of tolerance and nonviolence.
Is this a cautionary tale in adapting to the signs of the times?
The phrase “the oppressed become the oppressors” speaks of a tendency that appears throughout history. Those who have experienced oppression or marginalization sometimes adopt oppressive behavior themselves when they gain power or influence.
This idea highlights the potential for a cycle of oppression, where the roles of oppressor and oppressed can be reversed or perpetuated over time.
Do we have a cautionary reminder that power dynamics and systemic issues can shape the behavior and actions of individuals and groups, even if they have experienced oppression themselves?
We should keep in mind the counterpoint. Freed from oppression, many people seek justice and equality for all rather than perpetuate oppression.
Is this why Pope Francis, over and over, stresses that the three-year process of listening that he calls for is more than a parliament making decisions based on strength.
Yes, he calls for us to listen to each other. But above all, we should be listening to the Spirit challenging the imitations and excesses in our individual certitudes and “personal infallibility”.